Montevideo airport, at it's busiest...
We headed off to Montevideo airport, and having both added in extra time for the journey we arrived with loads of time to spare. We're used to flying from Gatwick and Heathrow and have forgotten how vast those hubs are. Montevideo international airport has one terminal building, about 20 check in desks and 9 departure gates. We're flying with TAM airlines, who were very helpful at check in, ensuring they told us where to go to pay our departure tax. At passport control they commented on how much time we had to go before our flight left as if to say "there's not much through the gate, are you sure you want to go through now". There wasn't much landside either so we went through anyway. Clever marketing - you have to walk through duty free to get to the departure gates.
I'm sitting now looking out across the airport. There are no planes on the tarmac that we can see. The lounge is reasonably full but it empties when a flight to Buenos Aires is called. Paraguay is a new adventure. I'm expecting it to be similar to Uruguay in many ways but there will obviously be differences too.
The flight is uneventful - we hub through BA which we didn't expect - and go back a time zone in Paraguay. Coming in to land there was a not very reassuring sight - two planes wrecks left abandoned on the strip along the runway. It didn't inspire confidence! At the airport there was the usual paperwork and passport stamping. We had to open our main packs at customs - seems to be a standard procedure.
The main terminal was the usual melee of people trying to convince you to take their taxi. Being worldly-wise travellers (!) we ignored the lot and headed for the official remises taxi stand. Not checking the exchange rate into the local currency in advance we raided the cash point and took out 150,000 Guarani's, later finding our this was about £12.
My initial impressions of Paraguay were mixed. From the air, the houses looked more solid and modern that other south American countries, but none of the roads appear to be paved. Driving through its hard to get a sense of the place. There are more people on the streets and the traffic is heavy. There's no sense of delineation between areas of town - its all thrown in together.
We went a slightly long route so were given the benefit of a driving tour of the centre - the taxi driver was trying to convince us that he could do tours for us all round the country. Perhaps he could my my Spanish isn't good enough to really understand him and he doesn't speak English. Our shortlist of hotels was ignored by tourist info when we asked at the airport. Instead they directed us to Las Margaritas - a bit beyond our budget and a standard business hotel. Very comfy and we'll do our best to get our money's worth from the free high speed internet connection.
At tourist info in the centre of town, Oscar (very friendly, works afternoons, speaks English) gave us a load of leaflets to go through but also left us confused. Asuncion is safe and its OK to travel by bus but if we go to the shopping centre, or if we go out at night, its best to get a taxi back to the hotel not a bus. This, combined with a high police presence and armed guards in shops left us feeling a bit unsettled and out of our comfort zone as we started to amble through town. This wasn't helped by the fact that it was already dark just after 5pm.
We decamped in the bar opposite the hotel to relax, switch into the atmosphere of the place and read through the info we've been given. There were some strange characters in there but the beer worked its magic and we rationalised our feelings of discomfort. The only option for eating near our hotel (which is downtown and pretty much shuts up out of main shopping hours) is the Ridizio Churrasqueria. Its quite an experience not just for the food but also for the building - it used to be an Italian society for mutual help and support and has a church like cavernous interior.
Rodizio's is a variation on the fixed price eat as much as you can buffet formula, the difference is that the price you pay depends on how much your plate of food weighs! As you walk in you're given a ticket which is used to mark down everything you eat and drink. Its got a hot buffet, big grill of different meats, huge salad bar and buffet puddings. If you lose your ticket it costs you 100,000 Guarani's. When you pay your bill, you're given an exit ticket that you have to hand in to the door man - losing that costs you 90,000 Guarani's.
The food was surprisingly good and tasty. It made a change from the Uruguayan diet and for pretty much the first time since we'd left we had vegetables. It was also very cheap and became our place to eat every night we we're in Asuncion. Our cheapest meal cost £3.75 in total, the most expensive (which included a bottle of wine) was about £12.